That would be Maltese for “Happy New Year.” The words were strung up in lights over the stone gates to the old city of Valetta, the great capital and port of the island nation. I was in Malta teaching systematic theology to a group of students from around the Mediterranean basin, and the day before my class began an earthquake had set off a tsunami in the Indian Ocean that claimed the lives of over 230,000 people.
Happy New Year 2005.
It was a difficult occasion to celebrate. A pall seemed to settle over the country as the reports of casualties continued to come in and soon reached staggering numbers. Festivals were cancelled. People in the streets looked distracted going about their daily business.
At the start of class Monday, one of the students asked, in Arabic through a translator, how we should understand God’s role in such an event. We decided that such a question would require a long answer.
Looking back on it after the fact, that class itself was a kind of answer. The practice of laying hold of the truths of Scriptures for all of life, mapping them out in a system, and considering them in all of their interrelated facets, offered perhaps the best response to such a question. We needed to be reminded of God’s mighty works in history, his works of creation and providence, and his works of redemption and restoration.
As we opened the Scriptures, we immediately saw how the Lord had rescued nations one moment, and then paused the next to listen to the faint cry of a single suffering soul; how Christ had conquered the forces of nature with a word, and then stepped onto a lonely shore to restore a forgotten Gentile. Being a systematic theology class, we drew truths from these stories that revealed the character of our Lord, his ways, his purposes, and how his character provides a foundation for our only hope in life and death.
Due to frequent breaks and outside assignments, classes at this school often went way over time. My final class on eschatology ended on New Year’s Eve shortly before midnight. After studying various approaches to the millennium, we finished with the nature of the new heavens and the new earth, our imperishable bodies, and Christ’s eternal reign. This was something we could all agree upon, and there was a lot of excitement in the class. As I brought our discussion to a close, one of the students raised his hand and suggested that we should take some time to worship God in response to his promises to us.
I had never had a class that ended in spontaneous worship, and I haven’t had one since, but that is what we did. We rang in the new year with prayer and song.
When faced with tragedy and loss, or joy and plenty for that matter, the proper response is inevitably reflection and worship. The Psalter exhibits to us the variety of forms worship might take: praise, thanksgiving, lament, redemptive history, and supplication. Each form gives expression to a unique situation, but all are worship. After all, Israel responded to exile with songs of Zion. Such worship is not denial of suffering, but an embrace of a reality in which God lives, acts, and restores the sufferer.
It is the second week of 2014. Is-sena it-tayba.
John Scott Redd, Jr., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary